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III.2 Identity and Dis-establishment - Church state

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III.2 Identity and Dis-establishment

Can “weak” establishment of the Anglican church - for example - be legitimately defended in contem­porary multi-religious and multi-ethnic English society by reference to the specific history or identity of the English nation? Defenders of constitutional dis-establishment reject this idea pointing to the ‘exclusiveness’ (38) of the ‘hallowed myth about the Crown, our Nation and the Chur­ch’ (Valerie Pitt, PSI 36). In all tradi­tional varie­ties of an es­tablished church, re­ligion functio­ned as community cult. Politi­cal and religious community have been presented as co-exten­sive. ‘Consequently, one is born into “community cults” and coinciding mem­bership in both is particularistic and exclu­sive’ (Casanova 1994:45f), a practice which is clearly at odds with any de­fensible no­tion of a multi-ethnic and -religious society. Christian individualist, “twice-born” salvation religion has originally been opposed to community cults by releasing ‘the indivi­dual from particu­la­ristic, ascriptive ties’ (Casanova 46).47 It has been ‘potentially con­du­cive to the forma­tion of universalistic religious communities through processes of ever wi­der fra­ternization (and sororization)’. Its adoption by Constantine as the community cult of the Roman Empire in the form of a compulsory, coercive, monopolistic, sacramental grace insti­tution introdu­ced an inherent tension between particularist and uni­versalist ten­dencies, which has been charac­teristic for all established Christian churches from Constan­tine on­wards. Both sectarian Pro­testantism (with its return to the primitive Christian church) and, to a lesser degree, Ca­tholic Reformation (Vatican II) imply a con­scious rejection of Constan­tine Christendom. The fairly direct conclusion of such a history is: liberate Chris­tendom from all rem­nants of ceasaropapism48 and liberate the state from the ‘religion of the Priest’. Both requirements seem to converge straight forwardly in “non-establishment + fight against institutional pluralism”.49 The other, non-religious aspects of the iden­tity of the En­glish nation, too, have been highly particularistic and exclusionist (white, colonia­list, sexist and narrowly na­tiona­list, as English predominance and the lasting problems in develo­ping a truly multi-na­tional Bri­tain show: no Black in the Union Jack).

Does fairness in a multi-religious and multi-ethnic society require to overcome historically rooted establishment, exclusionist identity and its symbolical presence? Bhiku Parekh gives a dou­ble answer to this question.

On the one hand: ‘Like all other societies Britain has a distinct history, traditions, way of life, and so forth, and hence a specific character that makes it the society it is and distinguishes it from others. Among other things it is profoundly shaped by Christianity, as is evident in its moral life, myths, political and moral dis­course, litera­ture, art and self-conception. Since Britain cannot shed its cultural skin, to deny the Christian com­ponent of its identity in the name of granting equal status to all its religions is unjust (because it denies the bulk of its citi­zens their history).’ (19) On the other hand ‘Britain has undergone marked demographic changes.. It now has a sizeable number of religious minorities with their own distinct histories and traditi­ons, about which they feel as strongly as the rest of Britain’s citizens do about theirs. The minorities are an equal and integral part of Bri­tish society, and deserve not only equal religious and other rights but also an official acknowledge­ment of their presence in both the symbols of the state and the dominant definition of national identity. The acknow­ledge­ment cannot be equal.. However they .. deserve some collective and pu­blic recognition by the state’ (19)

Parekh signalizes that it is as difficult as it is necessary to ‘reconcile the equally legitimate demands of Britain’s historical identity and the principle of equality’ (20):

‘The only way to reconcile these two demands is both to accept the privileged status of Christianity and to give public recognition to other religions. Christianity may therefore rightly remain the cen­tral part of Bri­tish col­lective identity, provided that other religions receive adequate though not necessarily equal recogni­tion in the institutions, rituals and ceremonies of the state’ (20).

I agree that the public and symbolic recognition of diverging traditi­ons and identities in­vol­ves some tricky balancing. I also agree that this public and symbolic recognition has to ex­tend beyond civil society. Given the enormous historical importance of reli­gions for state ri­tuals and ceremonies, evenhan­dedness requires to include them as well. However, Parekh does not answer the question of why the symbolic recogni­tion of Christia­nity and other or­ganized religions without constitutional establishment is not enough? Symbolic recognition without constitutio­nal establishment may achieve the same ends in better ways. Why some version of weak or plural constitutio­nal establishment? Reference to British history cannot plausibly explain this because, as Pa­rekh himself sees, Britain may - at the end of the 20th Century - decide to disestablish the Anglican church as it may decide to become a re­public. Reference to history is not, in itself, a good normative argument in favor of esta­blishment.50 Refe­rence to iden­tity only would help if all collective identities would need in­stitutionalized le­gal privile­ges.51

Full cultural and sym­bolic equality among religions is an utopian ideal which is impossible to achieve and which is undesi­rable for prudential and moral reasons as well. This is the hard core of Parekh’s argument: the predominance of Christianity is an integral part of En­glish history and national identity, and it would be unfair and very unwise to neglect this. A fairer and more evenhanded balance between these cultures and identities, however, is possible and morally required, particu­larly if one takes into account that huge social and cultural pressu­res are at work towards cultural assimilation anyway (see Zolberg 1997:150f), even in cases that organized ethnic and religious minorities try to resist such assimilation and even in ca­ses that some radical state-policy in favor of cultural recognition and religious diver­sity would try to empower these minorities as much as possible. Policies of cultural re­cog­nition are much stronger if backed by policies of institu­tional pluralism. "Non-constitu­tional plura­lism" combines the advantages of institutional pluralism and helps to avoid the nasty as­pects of all forms of ‘establishment’ spelled out below.

III.3 Contested Effects of Establishment/Dis-establishment

Realism, rightly, reminds us that “ought implies can”. All practical evaluations involve con­tested statements about empirical ef­fects of the different links between state and (organized) religions. Again, a full evaluation of these effects is way beyond this article. Instead, I try to clear the ground, so to speak, for such an evaluation by addressing unfoun­ded fears of op­ponents of dis-establishment that it would lead to a decline of religious beliefs and practices or to a privatization of religions, and by pointing to weaknesses of “weak esta­blishment”. In the main part of this section, I try to refute the core arguments of opponents of all forms of institutional pluralism.

Opponents of dis-establishment fear that it will lead to a decline of religious beliefs and practices or to a complete privatization of religion. The experience in most European coun­tries shows, on the contrary, that sturdy and prolonged defense of “strong” esta­blishment has contributed significantly to the decline of religious beliefs and practices and to privati­zation of religions as a consequence of belated dis-establishment. And the expe­rience in the U.S. shows, contrary to Sylvia Rothschild’s assumption (PSI 58), that non-establishment can go hand in hand with an increasing public role of specific reli­gions. Dis-establishment does also not lead to a serious destabilization of society or of the state.52

Most participants agree that "strong establishment" has negative empirical effects: it cor­rupts the church, it contributes to the decline of religious belief and practice, it is inherently con­servative, it is incompatible with equal citizenship in multi-ethnic and -religious societies and it does not contribute to religious pluralism but tries to prevent it. "Weak establishment" also seems unable to address the important issue of serious inequalities among organized re­ligi­ons and their impact on politics. If the legal privileges of the Anglican church would no longer provide any real privileges, as Hasting holds (PSI 40), the whole question of further dis-establishment would be purely academic or strategic. Proponents of pluralization of es­ta­blishments or of dis-esta­blishment challenge the claims that the Anglican church has radi­cally changed its character in teaching and practice, that it has become a modern, ecumeni­cal, respectful, sensitive church, actively stimulating religious plu­ralism.53 Rosser-Owen, from a Muslim perspective, while favoring "weak establishment" (84),54 complains that the Anglican church did near to nothing to fight religious discrimination of Muslims in Britain55 and Dee­pak Naik, speaking from a Hindu perspective, points to serious inequalities of re­sources of minority religions.56 "Weak establishment" clearly has not contributed to their em­power­ment and these doubts are strengthened by a comparison of the institutionalization of Islam in England with its weak established church with the Netherlands which officially has removed the last legal privileges of churches in the con­stitutional reform of 1983.57 If these arguments are sound, we have to chose between the two options of institutional plu­ralism, on one hand, and "non-establishment + private pluralism" on the other.

Opponents of institutional pluralism have mobilized the whole battery of argu­ments against constitutional, legal, administrative, and political pluralism, well-known from the debates about (neo-)corporatism, “pillarization” and affirmative action.

(1) The state cannot ‘establish religion in the abstract when its people adhere to many reli­gions’ (Pitt, PSI 39). Institutional pluralism thus implies some nasty problems of formal re­cogni­tion and of categorization.

‘Equally, the other religions, now playing an active part in English life, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and so on should be entitled to equal treatment with Christia­nity. This could mean the right for a senior Imam or a repre­sentative Hindu priest to repre­sentation in the House of Lords and the right for State support to Catho­lic or Buddhist counselors in the armed forces or hospitals. How far should this be extended - to Moonies, to Spiri­tualists, to Scientologists? Isn’t it better to remove the privilege altogether?’ (Herrick, PSI 48).

Which denominations and religions should be, more or less formally, recognized consti­tu­tionally (as the proposal of multi-faithism in England seems to suggest), legally (as in Bel­gium) or administratively (as in all cases where central or local state administration has to deal with (organized) religions (as in the Netherlands))? Which criteria should be used in such re­cognition? Is such recognition not inherently unfair, because the state cannot give of­ficial voice and position to all sects and denominations? (Trade off between numbers and ef­fectiveness, trust and cooperation). How high should the inevitable thresholds be? Cate­gori­za­tion also may have the unintended but foreseeable effect to stimulate strategic use of reli­gious identities.58

(2) Not only constitutional establishment of many religions, but also legal or administra­tive inclusion into “corporatist” forms of deliberation, decision making and implementa­tion depend upon choices of particular (overarching) organizations and leaders as partners. Inten­tionally or not, it may initiate, and it inevitably influences processes of organiza­tion and leadership selec­tion. Religious minorities, like others, are not in­ternally homogeneous, mo­nolithic blocks, and state recognition of some organizations and leaders instead of others can contribute to the continuation or the development of internally undemocratic relations and to the suppres­sion of internal minorities (e.g. more liberal versus more conservative or even fun­damentalist interpretations and practices of religion; suppres­sion of women or homosexu­als). Only Anne Phillips (24) has voiced this feminist criticism during the PSI conference. Many feminists also assume that fe­mi­nism is incompatible with group rights (see note 31). Other feminists also clearly recognize ‘the perils of multicultural accommodation’ (Shachar 1998) and challenge traditionalism, unrepre­sentative organizations or leadership, and ‘male member interests parading as community interests’ (Reitman 1998:13). But they develop a more balanced and productive strategy: scruti­nize in­ternal group pro­cesses (15f.) from within and from the outside in order to make or­ganizati­ons and leaders more representative without sacrificing group rights and forms of collective autonomy for ethno-cultural and religious groups.

(3) Pluralist institutionalization may imply some inherently conservative tendencies, stabili­zing the status quo ante against (rapid) change in the relative strength (numbers, geo­graphi­cal concentration) and importance of (organized) religions and, by this, widening the gap between formalized religious “establishment” and actual religious state of affairs of a coun­try. This fact is well-known from Dutch pillarization and from the effects of neo-corpo­ratism on unions. Some conservative bias seems inherent in plu­ralist institutionalization because religious minorities first have to organize and mobilize in order to pass thresholds for insti­tutionalization. Once institutionalized (de facto or more or less “legally” recognized) this process does not stop. Administrations, however, have difficulties to recognize these shifts and to adapt their poli­cies without serious time lags.

(4) Probably the most often heard argument against pluralist institutionalization points to its supposedly inherent divisive effects.

‘The secular humanist would prefer to see no church schools supported by the state. The inculcating of reli­gious ideas should be the province of the home and the church hall. However, since there is no likelihood of the dismantling of church schools it seems only fair that Muslims should have their schools too. Neverthe­less, secularists have some reluctance to see this, because of possible ethnic divisiveness. It might be better to offer generous tolerance of religious practices in state schools, such as ac­ceptance of special clothing, food, and right to prayer, in order that ethnic minorities may both retain their cultural and religious identity and grow up to integrate into British society (as many parents want)’ (PSI, Herrick 50).

Before accepting this rock-bottom argument (“mischief of faction”) against all versions of institutional pluralism one should consider the following counter-arguments.

(i) The development of collective worship and religious instruction in English county schools since the Education Act (1944) shows some of the typical problems involved in such “generous to­lerance”: (a) Competencies of the Agreed Syllabus Conference (ASC) and the Lo­cal Educa­tion Authority and their composition which does not reflect actual religious plura­lism. (b) The Law and the agreed syllabi very often ‘speak of religious education, but we mean Chris­tian education’ (Birmingham syl­labus in 1962, see Nielsen 1986:25) which neatly paral­lels the presumed “official ethnic neutrali­ty” of the state in general, of curricula in par­ticu­lar. (c) The development of more multi-re­ligious syllabi (in 1975 in Birmingham and la­ter in Hamp­shire and Bradford) caused fierce resistance by conservative Christians and, even­tually, led to the new Education Re­form Act in 1988 which explicitly stated that ‘collective worship shall be wholly or mainly of broadly Christian character’ and ‘any agreed syllabus shall re­flect the fact that the religious traditi­ons in Great Britain are in the main Christian’. The Con­servative government, in 1992, again stressed that ‘proper regard should continue to be paid to the nation’s Christian heri­tage and traditions in the context of both the reli­gious educa­tion and collective worship provided in schools’.

(ii) It is quite obvious that the demand for separate religious instruction and for se­parate religious schools with a VE status

‘would substantially diminish if existing state pro­vi­sion offered and delivered ... schools with a genuine, ac­tive commitment to multi-cultural, anti-racist and non-discriminatory education, including facilities to meet needs for prayer, diet and dress requirement’ (Commission for Racial Equality, CRE 1990:20; see Martin 1978 in gene­ral).

(iii) Experiences with separate schools are not conclusive in this regard. The catholic bishop of Leeds, for example, states that

‘the experience of my own community (which has been a persecuted minority) is that having our own school within the state system helped us to move out of our initial isolation so as to become more confident and self-assured. The ef­fect of the separate schools has been integration not divisiveness’ (The Times Educational Sup­plement, 4 Jan. 1991).59

Positive experiences are neglected and fear for divisive effects dominates the discussion on the side of secularists and socialists: the NSS (National Secular Society) warned against ‘segregation on the basis of race and color’ already in 1970, the as­sociation of LEA’s spoke of ‘sectarian threats’:

‘danger that claims are made in the name of religious rights and freedoms which mask sectarian beliefs and which cannot be in the wi­der interests of the Muslim community in the context of British society’.

In 1975, the British Secular Society foresaw ‘social disaster’.60 Instead of mobilizing such fears which may be backed by a generalized suspicion regarding the consequences of affir­mative action policies (see Lind, Hollinger, Offe 1998) it seems advisable to refrain from ge­nerali­zed theoretical and empirical statements. The effects of separate les­sons, schools, or­ganizati­ons cannot be judged independent of specific contexts, and institu­tional pluralism should not be compared with the myth of presumed neutrality or some ideal “model” of neutrality but with the actual "muddle" of majority predominance.61

(iv) Contrary to the presumed overall divisiveness of institutional pluralism, there are good arguments in favor of the thesis that granting separate institutions with fairly large autonomy in the field of religion and also of education is one of the most effective po­licies to prevent the development of separate institutions in politics and the presumed divi­sive ef­fects on civil and political society, citizenship etc.62 The other policy to prevent reli­giously motivated or religiously dressed political fundamentalism, of course, is attempting to pre­vent the formation of ethno-religious underclasses. Defenders of institutional pluralism need not, and should not, defend an unconditional or undifferentiated institutional sepa­ra­tion across the board, i.e. in all societal fields.63 Religious institutional pluralism ac­tually may help to prevent edu­ca­tional or political separation along religious lines and the deve­lopment of religious politi­cal fundamentalism.

Modood seems to prefer "plural establishment" over both “weak” establishment and dis-establishment sug­ges­ting that dis-establishment tends to increase religious funda­mentalism. He notes that the U.S. and India, the two examples of non-establishment mentioned by Herrick, ‘currently seem to be witnessing a rise in re­li­gious chauvinism and fundamentalism which threatens the common moral framework’(PSI 9) that most contributors to the debate wish to defend. Sylvia Rothschild assumes that ‘privatized reli­gion, religion de­nied a public role, is more likely to become embittered, into­lerant and fun­damentalist’ (10): ‘the only time that religion takes on extreme and funda­mentalist form is when it is not tempered by public activity’ (Rothschild 58, see also Parekh 21, Rosser Owen).64

(5) All varieties to institutionalize pluralism - particularly (neo-) corporatism, associative de­mocracy and group-rights and group-representation for women, ethnic and national mino­rities - have been charged to be incompatible with liberal democracy by liberals, republicans and other defenders of unitarian democracy although defenders of democratic pluralism have always explicitly stated that different forms of group-representation are not designed to re­place but to supplement representative political democracy.65 The pro­blem is clearly re­cog­nized by Modood:

‘An alternative would be to recognize that in the absence of being able to deliver neutrality, institutions should be designed to ensure that those who are marginalised by the dominant ethos are given some special platform or access to influence so that their voices are nevertheless heard.. Yet this alternative, especially where it takes the form of establishment as opposed to a constraint on an electoral process (a device, for example, that reserved certain seats for women or a minority in a decision-making forum) is open to the charge of being undemocratic. Even a reformed establishment, say, a Council of Religions, would be a form of corpo­ratist representation rather than a redesigning of electoral structures. One would have to take a view of how damaging it would be for an institution with such little power to remain independent of the franchise. There are certainly advantages in allowing organized religion corporatist influence rather than encouraging it, or obliging it, to become an electoral player (s.c. a political party -VB)’ (14). ‘the radical secularist’s concern with democratic purity may be counter-productive’.

As long as the various designs of institutional pluralism are not criticized in detail in or­der to show why, and how, they conflict with principles of democracy - whatever their defen­ders may think and say - these general accusations remain weak and may be bracketed here for reasons of space.


My analysis has shown the bewildering normative and empirical complexity of the relati­onship between state and (organized) religions, and also the complexity of all practical eva­lua­tions of these patterns. Compared with the simplicity and elegance of liberal “complete sepa­ration” good political theory forbids to propagate one best or optimal institutional mo­del, in­dependent from historical context and existing institutional arrangements. Still, I have tried to show that some general good practical arguments can be mobilized against “non-esta­blishment + private pluralism”. The corresponding myths of “complete separation” and “strict religious neutra­lity” may do no harm in the ideal worlds of moral theory. In the real world, they serve to mask actual non-neutrality and predominance of re­ligious majorities in state, political and civil society. Even non-establishment did not fall from heaven, and the degree of actual, rela­tional neutrality of state and political society, the actual freedoms of re­ligious belief and practices depend upon the voices, the organizations and the leaders of the for­merly exclu­ded religious minorities, upon mobilization of their re­sources, their struggles and, even­tually, on shifts in the balance of power. Political philos­ophy should not be allo­wed to conti­nue its “benign” neglect of basic historical and sociolo­gical insights. Its unholy alliance with ideology and practice of presumed universality in the service of majorities should be brought to an end.

All models of democratic institutional pluralism recognize serious inequalities among reli­gions in the actual world and the importance of mobilization of their internal resources (like numbers, organization, leadership, ideology). They add important external resources (like external subsidies, formal or official recognition, institutional representation, networks, po­litical legitimacy) which strengthen the conflict-capability of religious minorities and work against the continuous pressure towards enforced assimilation by majorities, political elites and bureaucratic incorporation policies. Recognition and institutional representation of minority religions may also serve to prevent both highly conflict-prone fundamentalist “otherness” as well as enforced loss of legitimate and highly valued plurality, diversity and “otherness”. Institutional pluralism gives minority religions more chances to challenge the predominant culture(s) and religion(s) and, at the same time, it gives democratic govern­ment more chances to mould religious organizations so that they actually learn to accept the principles and practices of liberal democracy.66 The moral reasons for cultural pluralism and religious diversity and the sociological reasons for institutional pluralism seem to rein­force each other (Bader 1998a).

My rough comparison of the different versions of institutional pluralism has shown, that “weak establishment” is the least attractive model. It may still be defended for highly specific pragmatic and strategic reasons.67 “Constitutional pluralism” and “non-constitutional plu­ralism”, the two remaining models of institutional pluralism, express relational neutrality more clearly than models which fight all forms of institutional pluralism in favor of either ‘private’ or ‘social pluralism’. Compared with “constitutional pluralism”, however, “non-constitutional pluralism” is preferable, in my view, for the following general reasons. (i) As a non-establishment option, it better expresses relational neutrality, the aim that under condi­tions of wide religious and secular diversity, state and political society should be as neutral as possible with regard to the existing religious and secular beliefs and practices. It also bet­ter expresses the crucial difference between, on the one hand, non-liberal and non-demo­cra­tic forms of corpo­ratism and religious pluralism ("strong establishment", its remnants in "weak establishment"; Millet-systems) and, on the other hand, modern forms of democratic plu­ra­lism compatible with principles and practices of democratic and social constitutionalism. (ii) As non-constitutional institutional pluralism, it also cannot avoid some of the nasty pro­blems of institutional representation but it can de-emphasize them. The strategy to newly constitutionalize religious pluralism would inevitably focus, politicize, dramatize and freeze the contested issues: which groups, organizations, leaders should be repre­sented in which fields, issues and decisions? Non-constitutional religious pluralism allows much more flexible, context-, field-, issue-specific and reversible answers on different levels of gover­nance be­cause it does not require constitutional fixation.68 The arrangements and practices of institu­tional representation can, if necessary, be adapted and changed more easily, whe­reas revisi­ons of constitutions need qualified majorities, much time etc. (iii) Non-esta­blishment toge­ther with an explicit recognition of the principles of democratic, social consti­tutio­nalism, make it easier to counter the challenges against institutional plura­lism by libe­rals and (neo-) republicans on one hand; on the other hand, they have important consequen­ces for more de­tailed institutional designs in the two other recent approaches in political theory who seem better suited to combine religious pluralism with institutional pluralism, to wit li­beral natio­nalism and associative democracy.

I belief that my - cautiously general - plea for non-constitutional religious pluralism fits best into a general mo­del of associative democracy, as developed by Paul Hirst, by Joshua Cohen and J. Rogers and others, but to demonstrate this would be another story. My intent to counter the prefer­red model of standard theory with a general model of "non-constitutional pluralism" has its price. This model is institutionally underdetermined and may also be at­tacked for some lack of in­stitutional concreteness. Which orga­nized religions should be re­cognized and represen­ted in which fields? on which issues? in which councils? with which powers? and so forth. Though much could be said about these questions also in more ge­ne­ral terms, it is obvious that such a dis­cussion could never lead to an institutional blue-print applicable to all coun­tries in all situa­tions.69 Although much can be learned from compari­son and interna­tional theoretical de­bate, the de­velopment of institutional designs of reli­gious associative demo­cracy has to take all specifi­cities of contexts into account. My article hope­fully stimulates such research.

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